'Matter of respect': Treaty 6 Grand Chief cold to suggestion to keep Cree street names simple

The Treaty 6 Grand Chief is disappointed an Edmonton councillor suggested the Cree name for a stretch of road linking the city with a First Nation to the west was too difficult to pronounce.

'We’ve had to learn all the time, other people’s names and places'

Earlier this year, 23rd Avenue between 215th Street and Anthony Henday Drive was renamed Maskekosihk Trail. (CBC )

The Treaty 6 Grand Chief is disappointed after an Edmonton councillor suggested the Cree name for a stretch of road linking the city with a First Nation to the west was too difficult to pronounce or spell.

"I think fundamentally it's a matter of respect, respecting each other's differences," said Willie Littlechild, who served as a commissioner on Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools and contributed to the drafting of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 
Treaty 6 Grand Chief Wille Littlechild, pictured in 2014 at an Assembly of First Nations meeting, says using traditional Indigenous names is a sign of respect. (The Canadian Press)

"We've had to learn all the time, other people's names and places."

Littlechild said embracing Indigenous linguistic traditions is an important step to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada.

Edmonton took a step in that direction earlier this year, when it renamed the portion of 23rd Avenue between 215th Street and Anthony Henday Drive as Maskekosihk Trail.

Tuesday at Edmonton city hall, Coun. Bryan Anderson called that decision into question from what he argued was a practicality standpoint.

"Spell it on a legal document quickly," he said. "Why would we create situations where people are going to be forced to struggle when there are some usability solutions?

"We don't need to bend over backward to be authentic if there is a more usable alternative that accomplishes the same thing."

Mayor Don Iveson endorsed naming the road Maskekosihk Trail in a letter to the committee that made the recommendation. 

'Third World challenges' 

Pronounced Muss-Kay-Go-See, Maskekosihk means "people of the land of medicine." That area traditionally grew herbs and plants used in remedies.

Enoch Cree Nation Chief Billy Morin, who represents the local band, wasn't thrilled by Anderson's comment, either.

"Coun. Anderson's concern epitomizes First World problems in the face of Third World challenges we face as First Nations peoples," he said in a text message.

Littlechild said when drafting the United Nations Declaration in the 1990s, ensuring the right to language, including the ability to revert back to traditional names, was critical.

While Canada did not sign the document initially in 2010, the government of the day endorsed it as aspirational. The current government has given unqualified support.

Littlechild pointed to that as an indicator that the discussion of whether Indigenous names should integrated is over.

Learning curve 

Not all Indigenous languages are the same.

Littlechild, who is Cree from Maskwacis, said when he visits other communities, he too encounters a learning curve.  

For many years he thought Kahnawake was pronounced Kog-nah-wahg-uh, he said.

"In their language they say Kah-nah-wahg-ee," he explained. "If I say Kog-nah-wahg-uh, they'd say, 'Hey, wait a minute, that's not our name.' "

If I say  Kog-nah-wahg-uh , they'd say, 'Hey, wait a minute, that's not our name.'- Treaty 6 Grand Chief Willie Littlechild

Littlechild said taking the time to learn a proper name is a sign of respect.

It's something that strikes a nerve with him, bringing him back to his residential school days.

"For many years as a young boy, my name wasn't Willie, it was No. 65," he said. "That has a very serious impact on an individual's personal pride and identity."

When Maskwacis reverted to its traditional name from Hobbema in 2014, it brought people together, Littlechild said.

"We had some internal difficulties or differences, but with one name instead of four different names, one of the important effects for us was it really unified our community," he said. "Just with a simple gesture like that."  

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell

With files from Nola Keeler